Sunday, September 26, 2010

"It's a Hypothetical": Doug Eaton and the Definition of "Hypothetical" As Applied to Hebrews Chapter 6

The Oxford American Desk Dictionary defines “hypothetical” as “of or based on or serving as a hypothesis; supposed but not necessarily real or true.” Synonyms of “hypothetical” include “assumed, presumed, conjectured, surmised, imaginary.” Something that is hypothetical can be assumed for the sake of the argument...but whether or not the assumption can happen in real life is another thing altogether.

I listened some time ago to a one-hour presentation on eternal security at Youtube by Doug Eaton. The first thirty minutes is Eaton’s sermon on eternal security and why he believes the concept is true and scriptural. The last thirty minutes or so of the presentation consists of Eaton discussing the other passages that have been known to argue against eternal security.

It is in the last ten minutes of the presentation that Doug Eaton actually gets around to Hebrews 6. I sat through the entire one-hour presentation, listening to every word, relistening to certain portions and taking detailed notes.

In his remarks concerning the controversial chapter of Hebrews 6, Eaton responded, “This passage [Hebrews 6:4-6] doesn’t actually say that apostasy can be done. It’s a hypothetical.”

Now, the first thing that comes to mind is the meaning of the word “hypothetical,” and how we label the warning of these verses (Heb. 6:4-6). According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the word means “imaginary” or “assumed.” Now, these two words do not mean the same thing. When something is assumed, it can be taken as either real or unreal. When something is “imaginary,” it is simply assumed “for the sake of the argument,” not because it shares any correspondence with reality itself.

So, how do we characterize the “hypothetical” of Hebrews 6:4-6? Is the hypothetical “assumed” as real or unreal? Or is the warning “imaginary”?
The verses themselves have the answer. Let’s look at Hebrews 6:4-6---

“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6, NKJV).

The congregation to which the writers send this epistle is at the same place as those persons discussed in Hebrews 6. What I mean by this is that the congregation itself had been enlightened (Heb. 10:32); they had received salvation (Heb. 2:3; 4:1, 3, 14; Heb. 10:23, 34); they had become partakers of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 3:1); they had tasted of the good word of God (Heb. 5:11-14) and the powers of the coming age, referring to at least the gifts of the Spirit (Heb. 2:4), if not miracles and other supernatural signs. In short, the congregation of Jewish believers was at the place of those to whom the writers refer in Heb. 6:4-5. This is expected, since the writer is talking to these Jewish believers regarding their perseverance in the faith.

So if these Jews are believers, then how do we label the “hypothetical” nature of Hebrews 6:4-6? The first thing we must notice is that these Jewish believers have not fallen away YET (the operative word here)! We know this because the writers state just three verses down from the harsh words of Hebrews 6:


In verse 10, the writers recount the good deeds of the Jewish believers as well as the perseverance in well doing of their current state. From this, we gather that these said Jews are still continuing in the faith. In this sense, the warning is “hypothetical,” meaning that it is a warning of “possibility,” that the congregation “could” fall away (v.6).

However, is the warning of verse 6 “hypothetical” in the sense that the idea of falling away is imaginary and cannot happen? That is a far-fetched conclusion with no evidence from the text itself. After the warning in verse 6, with the two alternatives of the land in verses 7-8, and the recognition of the good works of the Jewish believers in verses 9-10, the writers continue to exhort the believers: “And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you DO NOT BECOME SLUGGISH, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:11-12).

The warning in verses 4-6, then, is to push the believers forward in their walk with Christ so that they would continue to endure the persecution they faced daily. Notice that in verse 12, the writers desire that the Jews not become “sluggish,” since they can only inherit the promises “through faith and patience.” Sluggishness, in the minds of the writers, leads to the opposite of inheriting the promises (“the word ‘but’ indicates contrast).

The writers use verses 4-6 to show the Jews what would happen to someone in that state. Since the Jews have all the characteristics of verses 4-6 EXCEPT for “falling away,” we can safely conclude that the Jewish believers to whom the letter was written were on the brink of apostasy (not that they had actually committed it yet). Nevertheless, apostasy was a real possibility for these believers. As Paul Ellingworth writes,

“The meaning of vv.4-6 may thus be summarized as follows: (1) apostasy is a real danger which threatens the community addressed. (2) There is no way back from apostasy to a renewal of the initial act of repentance associated with baptism and forgiveness. (3) The author does not state that the community or any of its members have in fact already abandoned their faith. (4) the author’s ultimate purpose, next expressed in vv. 9-12, is to encourage his readers to persevere” (“The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews.” Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993, page 325).

Even the Greek scholars of the NIGTC agree that apostasy is a real danger. While it had not happened yet with these Jewish believers, it had occurred in the church at Ephesus (2 Timothy 2:17-18).

To sum up, this post covered the definition of the word “hypothetical” as applied to the situation of Hebrews 6. The believers were still in the faith, as their work for God testified; however, they were on the brink of apostasy, so the writers wanted to encourage them to press on and persevere in the faith, while understanding that to go back to Judaism would be to renounce their faith and abandon the only hope for their eternal destination. To neglect their salvation (Heb. 2:3) would merit eternal damnation. Let us often say the words of Peter in John 6: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69, NKJV).


The Seeking Disciple said...

I agree with you. It's hypothetical where? How can we know that it's hypothetical other than by simply saying that it is because we don't agree with the author of Hebrews on this? I have always found the hypothetical arguments for the warning passages of Hebrews to be found wanting to say the least.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


Your comments show that you read my mind quite well. When theologians and believers approach the Scriptures, they do not argue anywhere else in Scripture (on anything) that a phrase or verse in Scripture is "hypothetical." Even when combating the Open Theist in statements expressed about God not thinking that Israel would do something (as in Jeremiah, for example), we do not argue such statements as hypothetical. Rather, we attempt to understand what they can show us about God (we find them useful). Why then, when we come to Hebrews 6, do we make the passage out to be hypothetical?

As an addendum, this is a large part of my disagreement with Molinism. Molinism does the same thing with the warnings. William Lane Craig states that the warnings are true, but then says that God has chosen a world where the warnings do not apply. Christians then, could fall away...just in another world (a world that doesn't exist). In other words, he affirms that the warnings are "hypothetically true." once again, I'm at a loss as to what this means...

The question I can never get a straight answer about is, "Why are the warnings not to be taken literally?" The letters are written to believing congregations, so why would something be said in them that isn't true and serious? Why do the writers say what they say in Heb. 6:4-6 if they only wanna make the believers endure? And why is it that whenever someone brings up these passages, Calvinists (and Calvinistic Christians) attempt to point to God as being responsible for the believer's perseverance? if God were responsible for persevering, why would He tell US to persevere? Again, I'm at a loss as to how the text can be read and interpreted in any other way.